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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Study: Immigrants Key to American Economy

WASHINGTON -- A new study of census data concludes that recent immigrants to the United States were critical to the nation's economic growth in the past decade, accounting for half of the new wage earners who joined the labor force in those years.

The effect was particularly large among men: Eight of 10 new male workers in the decade were immigrants who arrived during that time, according to the report by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.

New immigrants accounted for 76 percent of the labor force growth in Maryland and 44 percent in Virginia. In Washington, where the workforce declined, immigrants prevented further shrinkage.

The Northeastern University report, scheduled for release this week, offers powerful new evidence of the growing impact of immigrants in American society.

Earlier data from the 2000 Census showed a record number of new arrivals during the 1990s that prevented population loss in some cities and rural areas. The newly analyzed workforce numbers show that immigration also is redrawing the profile of the U.S. workforce, in some cases transforming entire industries.

More than 13 million immigrants came to the United States from 1990 to 2001 -- some legally and some illegally -- drawn by the healthy economy and family ties. The report said 8 million immigrants joined the labor force, which means they were either working or looking for work, over a period when the total number of new workers was 16 million.

The impact on the workforce was significantly larger than in the previous decades. In the 1970s, for example, immigrants accounted for 10 percent of the labor force growth. It increased to roughly a quarter in the 1980s before expanding to half in the 1990s. Even so, 86 percent of the workforce is American-born.

For decades, the nation's immigration policy has been a subject of intense debate, with critics saying the large numbers strain schools and other government services and take jobs from American-born workers.

One of the authors of the Northeastern study argues that the research indicates the opposite: The U.S. economy would have stumbled in the past decade without the new arrivals, and most immigrants contribute more in taxes than they use in services.

"The American economy absolutely needs immigrants," said Andrew Sum, director of the labor market center. "I realize some workers have been hurt by this, and some people get very angry when I say this, but our economy has become more dependent on immigrant labor than at any time in the last 100 years."

Sum said many of the new immigrant workers, possibly half, are here without legal papers, meaning that the immigrants have an uncertain future and that the economy is dependent on people in a legal no man's land.